Why do we treat science as a joke in Pakistan?

The scene begins with a man theatrically putting on a white lab coat,matching mask and transparent protective glasses before adjusting his left glove with a dramatic snap while an array of beakers bubble in the background. The viewer then encounters an anonymous man in a white lab coat who carefully (and rather pointlessly) transfers non-descript pink liquid from one beaker to the other. At this point a lady enter the lab and cheerfully chimes in with: “Aap lab main kyabanarahay hain?” (What are you preparing in the lab?)to which the man, turning his face away from the colorful apparatus, confidently responds:“Hum Pakistan ka paanisaafkarnaykikoshishkarrhay hain”(We are trying to clean Pakistan’s water).As he continues fiddling with the complex looking equipment, the woman fires another query, “Science ka shawkkab say hua?” (When did you become interested in science?)“Abhi abhi” (Just now)cheerily responds the man as he now pours out liquid into another beaker.The year is 2019 and the man in question is none other than Fawad Choudhry, the current Federal Minister of Science and Technology of the 6th largest country in the world in terms of population, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Fawad Choudhry

This then, is what Fawad Choudhry believes the process of scientific inquiry ought to look like: an array of beakers, centrifuges and bubbling colorful liquids being mixed together in a poorly-lit lab by a man,who looks every bit the part of a ‘mad scientist’, with a newly- acquired and abiding love for science. For me, his video and recent statements were an unpleasant déjà vu. In 2012, the Federal Minister for Science & Technology, Changez Ahmed Jamali, went to Sukkur, Pakistan with Religious Affairs Minister Khursheed Shah in tow, to meet Engineer Agha Waqar Ahmad, of the water kit running car fame, in the hope of replacing Pakistan’s dependence on oil imports. Waqar declared that he could run a car purely on water and went about demonstrating his water kit to all and sundry. What followed were several weeks of madness in which Agha Waqar received vociferous support from all corners ranging from television anchors, politicians,all the way to the head of Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), Dr. Shaukat Parvaiz. Standing incredulously and desolately on the other side trying but failing to make the nation see reason(and the laws of thermodynamics) were Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, Dr. Atta Ur Rehman and Dr. Shaukat Hameed Khan.

The water-kit saga betrayed a more potent malaise, a deep-rooted anti-intellectualism at the heart of our republic and national culture.While scientific pursuit is still treated as a bit of a joke in Pakistan, there has ironically been an espousal and celebration of our intellectual past, particularly our Muslim intellectual past. On Nov 4, 1969, for example, the Pakistan Postal Service issued a postage stamp commemorating and remembering the life of Ibn-al-Haitham, the medieval Arab mathematician and physics, whose legacy as the “founder of physics in the modern sense of the word” is only now being reclaimed and acknowledged.

Ibn al Haitham

One of the most striking features of the medieval Arab scholars of that time was the acceptance and admission of their own academic and philosophical limitations and their opening up to ideas from outside. We, as a nation, purport to follow luminaries of the past and at least claim to seek inspiration from their work. On the other hand, today, in our society, there is rampant anti-intellectualism and a certain degree of armoring up, where we shut out ideas that may attack our established dogmas and beliefs.In fact, the process of holding on to and appropriating our Islamic scientific heritage is a form of epistemological defense meant to shield us from critique about the dismal state of scientific progress within postcolonial Pakistan.

In a sense, we are precluding ourselves of the responsibility of any further progress by stating that whatever has taken place, has done so mainly through Muslim contribution thus far. This sense of smug self-satisfaction has led to a reactionary society that fails to look inward and to introspect, that searches vainly for conspiracy theories to explain away its own self-inflicted wounds, that plays up the possibility of a world colluding to see it fail and that looks for shortcuts and miracles to extricate itself.

In fact, in Pakistan we consistently observe a suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it. Being an intellectual is considered synonymous with the ability to earn degrees and with the number of years spent in the classroom alone. Go to any bookstore in Pakistan, and the only books that consistently sell are school and university prescribed textbooks, i.e. material that must be bought, compulsory, as we like to say. Beyond these books, there is very little interest in reading for the sake of reading or gaining knowledge just for the sake of it.

Perhaps our colonial past might hold some answers to this rampant anti-intellectualism. The British colonial project was primarily interested in strengthening and furthering the British hold over India. It did this partially by building a veritable civil and administrative force.The colonial project sought to ingrain within the local populace the idea that prestige and honor lay in administrative and clerical duties. It developed educational institutions that mass-produced degree wielding individuals for whom the zenith of ambition meant a complete, homogeneous and servile entrenchment within the British Indian civil service. Free-thinking, idea-generating individuals would in fact have been a threat to the British stranglehold over the crown jewel. We miss people who can exhibit critical inquiry, who can ask the right questions, identify the most important problems and go about systematically finding the means of solving them. If we don’t realize thissoon, we will continue to produce ministers who want to clean Pakistan’s water in a day or want to put their bets on the same water, once miraculously purified, to run our cars.

Samee ur Rehman holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Delft University of Technology. He currently works as a Data Scientist in Silicon Valley, California. https://www.linkedin.com/in/surehman/




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